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Google's Marissa Mayer Assaults Designers With Data

The irony was not lost on anyone in attendance at AIGA's national conference in Memphis last weekend. Marissa Mayer, "keeper" of the Google homepage since 1998, walked into a room filled with over 1,200 mostly graphic designers to talk about how well design worked at the design-dismissive Google. She even had the charts and graphs of user-tested research to prove it, she said. Designers shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

marissa mayer

In an almost robotic delivery, Mayer acknowledged that design was never the primary concern when developing the site. When she mentioned to founder Sergey Brin that he might want to do something to spiff up the brand-new homepage for users, his response was almost poetically eloquent: "I don't do HTML."

Currently they do employ designers at Google. But if they actually do design or not is up for debate since every decision at Google comes from data testing, not the reasoning of a creative mind. About the now-notorious claim that she once tested 41 shades of blue? All true. Turns out Google was using two different colors of blue, one on the homepage, one on the Gmail page. To find out which was more effective so they could standardize it across the system, they tested an imperceptible range of blues between the two. The winning color, according to dozens of charts and graphs, was not too green, not too red. "It's interesting to see how you can change the way that people respond to the Web in ways that are not intuitive," she said. But intuition is exactly what you hire designers for, right?

This kind of over-analytical testing was exactly why designer Doug Bowman made a very public break from Google earlier this year. "I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4, or 5 pixels wide and was asked to prove my case," he wrote in a post after his departure. Maybe he couldn't, but someone won a recent battle to widen the search box by a few pixels, the most major change for the homepage in quite some time.

I started to get the feeling that she selected the red shirt she was wearing that day not because she liked it, but because it provided the best contrast when placed before a giant Google homepage, luring the eye naturally towards the red characters in the logo.

Afterwards, I ducked backstage in the hopes that I could ask Mayer a little more about how the designers are brought into these high level decisions (if at all). But she quickly analyzed the amount of time it would take and said she didn't have even a moment to talk to me. Then she transformed back into a private jet and flew away.

[Photo by Wheat Wurtzburger]